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A Growing Movement: New York City’s Local Farmers Democratize Food

Christina Zawerucha Aug 10, 2005

By Christina Zawerucha
Additional reporting by Robert Burns

It’s worth it,” insists Catalino De Jesus, as he bends over to pick collard greens on the Hilltop Hanover Farm in Yorktown Heights in Westchester early on a damp Saturday morning. Catalino begins his commute from Queens at 5 a.m. to participate in the New Farmer Development Project (NFDP) a 12-week program to teach immigrants how to begin their own small farms and break into the tough Northeast market for fresh, organic produce.

“Many immigrants to this country have farming experience from their homelands, yet have difficulty finding the economic resources to establish their own farms,” explains Maria Alvarez, the project’s coordinator. The project, developed by the Council on the Environment of New York and Greenmarket provides participants with technical information, on when to plant different crops, access to land, and support filling out loan applications.

By training the next generation of regional farmers, NFDP hopes to stem the decline of Northeast farming by preserving farmland, strengthening farmers’ markets, and expanding public access to locally grown products.

Jorge Suerra came to New York from Ecuador with an engineering degree. Though he works during the week at various jobs, the NFDP has made it possible for him to find land to start his own farm next season. “My family had a farm in Ecuador, now I come an hour and a half to start my own, then another hour to Hunts Point to sell in the market,” says Suerra. Sergey Holasko, a participant from last year, commutes every day from Queens to Yorktown Heights, where he has improved a patch of barren land to harvest produce for his community.

“Everything in the supermarket has pesticides and chemicals that I don’t want to eat. And organic food is expensive!” says Irene Zaluaga, whose family grew fresh vegetables in their garden when they lived in Colombia. “Once, somebody invited me to join a food co-op, but it was still very expensive. The food we grow here is not free; we earn it with our time and energy so we don’t need to think about the money as much.”
“We want to see more development of farms in America. We can’t keep getting our vegetables from California. Look at how high gas prices are now!” exclaims Luz Espinosa, a Colombian grandmother of three who now lives in Queens. “Let’s get families involved! Kids can do more than just play video games. And we need to let politicians know how important fresh vegetables are!”

BLOOMING IN EAST NEW YORK

A passer-by walking beneath the train tracks along Livonia Avenue could hardly believe they’re in Brooklyn. A half-acre of life, laughter, and learning blooms on either side of the road, a part of the East New York Community Center’s East Farms of New York (EFNY) project.

“We’ve essentially created our own market,” explains Georgine Yergey, the project’s coordinator. “First, we asked what does our neighborhood need and what resources do we have to meet these needs?” What the neighborhood needed was a source of fresh foods that were affordable to the community, a space where kids could spend their summer, and physical help for the aging local gardeners in the area.

In 1994, a group of community gardeners decided to reclaim the rat-infested ruins of a group of buildings that had been burned down in the 1977 blackout. Now, 20 youths participate in the EFNY seven-month program of planting, harvesting, and selling organic produce in their community.

“We do everything: we plant it harvest it, and sell it, and there’s always something different every week,” explains Khalif Bruce, 15. The participants, 12 to 16 years old, work Tuesday through Thursday at the garden for a small stipend, or are taken by van as needed to help farmers and local elderly gardeners who could use a little extra muscle for their tougher chores. On Fridays, they pick whatever vegetables are ripe, record inventory of their harvest, and on early Saturday mornings they set up and run an entire farmers’ market in East New York. What started out as a single vegetable stand has grown into a full-blown market, with four additional farmers participating.

The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets officially recognized the project as a farmer’s market five years ago, qualifying community members for $2 weekly coupons. The EFNY also just established a beehive from which they have already harvested several pounds of raw honey, and finished constructing a rainwater-collection system that recycles water and reduces polluted runoff into the city’s waterways.

“There’s not much fresh food in the corner store, and a lot of it’s covered in pesticides and herbicides. But what we sell here is cheaper than what they sell in the supermarket, probably because they need to ship it and process it from hundreds of miles away,” says 16-year-old Charles Spruill.

Joemi Regalado happily displays piles of compost. “Worms eat it and well – it’s all doo-doo – but it’s good for you.” Roy Frias, 16, an intern at EFNY for three years, jumps in. “We’re not robbing the garden of any of the nutrients it should have by using chemical fertilizers that leach the soil.”

Some EFNY participants are considering careers in food production and distribution. Warren Ottey, 14, who will begin attending Port Richmond High School’s culinary program in the fall, runs the market’s Community Supported Agriculture table. “I manage the money, make sure customers pick up their shares, I pay the farmers and take care of receipts.” In between sharing his recipes for tat soi and bok choy greens, Ottey lays out his plans to start his own business and appear on the popular Food Channel TV show, “Recipe for Success”: “You better believe that I’m going to order all of my vegetables from a garden like this one.”

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